Jameis Winston still chasing his dream of becoming a two-sport star
TAMPA, Fla. -- A few minutes before the New York Yankees opened their Grapefruit League slate on Tuesday with an exhibition game at George M. Steinbrenner Field, manager Joe Girardi looked at the stands and made an observation to the guy throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. "Coach Girardi said it was the first time they ever had a spring training game where they were outnumbered in fans," Florida State football coach Jimbo Fisher said.
Some may have come to see Fisher, the onetime Clemson baseball recruit who threw a strike and then headed back to Tallahassee for offseason conditioning. But most came to see the guy who played the final four innings in left field and went 0-for-2 at the plate. Jameis Winston, the winner of a little football trophy and the quarterback of the defending BCS champion, will spend most of his days this spring either pitching or playing in the outfield for the Florida State baseball team. Winston does not intend for Tuesday to be his final appearance against a major league club, despite what the current realities of the NFL and Major League Baseball suggest. He still hopes to play in both leagues, just like former Seminoles star Deion Sanders and just like Bo Jackson, who grew up in the same area of suburban Birmingham as Winston."I want to play both for as long as I can," Winston said after a performance that included a groundout and a strikeout.
Logic suggests that Winston will eventually have to choose, and the obvious choice seems to be football. But logic also suggests that redshirt freshman quarterbacks are unlikely to win the Heisman Trophy and the national title, and Winston already did that. So why not keep dreaming until he's forced to make a decision?
Winston, who was drafted in the 15th round by the Texas Rangers after he graduated high school in 2012, did not get to show off his best baseball side on Tuesday. He's a switch-hitting outfielder, but his true talent lies -- shockingly -- in his right arm. As a pitcher, he throws a mid-90s fastball. He will serve as Florida State's closer this season when it doesn't interfere with spring practice. He could have pitched on Tuesday, but coach Mike Martin said Winston's arm was a little "tender," which might have been coachspeak for "We're saving him for Miami this weekend." Martin believes Winston has the talent to play in the majors. Martin coached Sanders at Florida State as well as Buster Posey and a host of other future big leaguers, so he knows potential when he sees it. For the sake of practicality, Martin believes that if Winston did play pro baseball, it would be as a pitcher. "I really think he's such a good pitcher that it's going to be easier for him playing two sports to develop as a pitcher/quarterback than as an outfielder/quarterback," Martin said. "But, like Deion, you don't put anything by these unbelievable athletes."
Of course, Winston's baseball dreams will likely earn him a "DOESN'T LOVE THE GAME OF FOOTBALL HERP DERP DERP" quote from everyone's favorite talent evaluator, Anonymous NFL Scout, come pre-draft season next year. (Yes, Winston has said he plans to spend four years at Florida State. Plans can change.) But Winston loves both. That's why Fisher, who will readily admit that he's a bit of a control freak, doesn't only allow Winston to play baseball, but also encourages it. "It has to be a true passion. To be good at both sports at the level he's playing them -- we're talking about a national championship football team and a top-two or top-three ranked baseball team -- you can't go out there and say, "I'm going to do this part-time,'" Fisher said. "There's got to be a true passion and commitment to doing it because of time constraints in football with the mental side of it and the technical side of it. If he can do it, more power to him. That's why he's special."
Fisher affords Winston an opportunity that he didn't afford himself. Fisher left Clemson because he realized he was a quarterback and not a second baseman. He transferred to Salem in West Virginia and then to Samford in Alabama and played quarterback at each. But Fisher sees an equal passion in Winston for both sports. So he and Martin have cordially worked out a plan that allows Winston to play both. Winston will miss some baseball for spring practice, just as he did last year when he was trying to beat out Jacob Coker and Clint Trickett for the starting quarterback job. "I love two-sport guys. I love guys who have the ability to do that," Fisher said. "I think it's very good for his football. Baseball is a game of failure. You fail a lot. How you handle those situations can help you as a football player."
Winston hasn't failed much as a college football player. He still hasn't lost as the starter. He failed twice at the plate on Tuesday against Bryan Mitchell, a 2009 draftee who likely will start this season in the minors. So maybe baseball can also help keep him grounded after some unprecedented success on the football field. Still, the question hangs in the air every time Winston takes the mound or picks up a bat: Could he really pull off two-sport stardom like Deion or Bo?
Sheer positional logistics suggest that would be nearly impossible. Sanders was a cornerback. Jackson was a tailback. They could miss time with their football teams and plug right back into their positions and produce. Some NFL team will build its entire offense around Winston, so the idea of him taking time away -- and taxing his arm -- into September or (Winston hopes) October would probably cause the cranial combustion of a sleep-on-a-cot-in-the-office coordinator.
Still, Winston's teammates think he might be the one guy capable of pulling off the feat. Right-hander Luke Weaver is a potential first-rounder in this year's draft who believes in Winston's baseball dreams. "A guy who throws hard like that is fun to watch," Weaver said. "He's got a big future in that, and he can swing it a little bit, too." Could Weaver imagine trying to play both sports as a pro? "No," Weaver deadpanned while scanning his eyes down the 170 pounds he stretches across a 6-foot-2 frame. "But I did watch a 30 for 30 with Bo Jackson, and he seemed like he had it all together."
Winston seems to understand a choice is looming, but he's going to enjoy both sports for the moment. After all, baseball allowed him to meet childhood hero Derek Jeter on Tuesday. Winston, who always seems to know what to say, found himself repeating the same thing -- much like the young autograph seekers who now approach him. "I was kind of starstruck," Winston said of meeting Jeter and Jorge Posada. "I just kept telling them it was an honor to meet them."
Winston doesn't think he should have to pick a sport. When he was younger, some coaches tried to suggest that he specialize. "When I was younger, they tried to get me to play baseball only," Winston said. "After this year, things have changed."
Now, everyone imagines Winston the NFL quarterback. Winston still pictures himself in spikes and a ballcap. So whether Tuesday was his last appearance against a pro team or just the first of many, Winston will keep playing as if he's going to be, as Martin calls it, "the next two-way big leaguer." "I love both," Winston said. "I've got a strong passion for both. I'll probably have more success in football, but baseball is a passion of mine, and I want to play as long as possible."